Singapore slips even further in press freedom rankings

Singapore has slipped a further six places to 146th position in Reporters Without Borders (RSF)’s recently released 2006 Worldwide Press Freedom Index, several rungs below dictatorial states like Zimbabwe (140th), Sudan (139th) and Venezuela (115th), and way behind Arab Gulf monarchies Kuwait (73rd), UAE (77th) and Qatar (80th). Among Southeast Asian countries, only military-ruled Myanmar and Communist Vietnam and Laos fared worse.

Singapore also has the dubious distinction of being the only developed nation in the entire bottom half of the Index, which ranks 168 nations. If one excludes the Gulf states, which although awash with oil wealth are known for their authoritarian structures, the next developed economy that even comes close to Singapore is ranked 58 (Hong Kong).

According to RSF, the Index reflects the degree of freedom journalists and news organisations enjoy in each country, and the efforts made by the state to respect this freedom. It is based solely on events between 1 September 2005 and 1 September 2006. This means that the bad press that Singapore received from the recent IMF-World Bank meetings and the banning and suing of the Far Eastern Economic Review were probably not factored into this ranking.

RSF compiled its Index by asking freedom of expression organisations, journalists, researchers, jurists and human rights activists, to answer a survey of 50 questions about press freedom in their countries. The questionnaire covered various challenges faced by journalists ranging from violence and physical threats against them, government restrictions on their work and state control of the media. While Singaporean journalists do not suffer from physical violence like in the Philippines, some of the questions which Singapore scored low on probably included:

14. Improper use of fines, summonses or legal action against journalists or media outlets?

19. Problems of access to public or official information (refusal by officials, selection of information provided according to the media’s editorial line etc)?

26. Censorship or seizure of foreign newspapers?

28. Independent or opposition news media?

29. An official prior censorship body systematically checking all media content?

30. Routine self-censorship in the privately-owned media?

31. Subjects that are taboo (the armed forces, government corruption, religion, the opposition, demands of separatists, human rights etc)?

32. A state monopoly of TV?

33. A state monopoly of radio?

34. A state monopoly of printing or distribution facilities?

35. Government control of state-owned media’s editorial line?

38. Opposition access to state-owned media?

42. Licence needed to start up a newspaper or magazine?

44. Serious threats to news diversity, including narrow ownership of media outlets?

45. A state monopoly of Internet service providers (ISPs)?

46. ISPs forced to filter access to websites?

48. ISPs legally responsible for the content of websites they host?

49. Cyber-dissidents or bloggers imprisoned (how many?)

It is interesting to note that while the usual suspects appeared at the top (Nordic countries) and bottom (Communist states, absolute monarchies and military juntas) of the Index, France, the country where RSF is based, was ranked only 35th, while the US fared even worse at 53rd. In fact, RSF ranked the press freedom of the extra-territorial regions administered by the US and Israel separately, slamming them with 119th and 135th rankings respectively. This may go some ways to refute the charge by many “Asian values” proponents of a blindly pro-Western bias among international journalists.

The ranking is expected to invoke a robust response from the Singapore government, which will likely argue that it reflects the liberal agenda of the Western media and that Singapore does not need to pander to these Western interests. The government will probably also point to Singapore’s favourable rankings on other aspects of governance, economic development, worker productivity and even airport and sea port rankings in other international surveys.

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Afternote:

  • A great artistic interpretation of S’pore’s latest rankings can be found at My sketchbook.

Technorati: Singapore, Reporters Without Borders, press freedom, press freedom index, press freedom ranking, censorship, politics

Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

7 thoughts on “Singapore slips even further in press freedom rankings”

  1. good analysis;)and the government will prob do the standard rebuttal on this press freedom index.Mmm..maybe can do a cartoon of the press secretary doing a “copy and paste” response on the computer from last year when we were ranked 140th;)

  2. Hey good idea!! Better do it quick, sekali she actually does the copy and paste job from last year! :)

  3. Although the Reporters sans frontières website publishes its list of criteria, it does not publicly state how many “demerit points” ensue from each of the many different violations.

    I was able to make contact with RSF and they have since sent me details of the “points system”.

    I have written a couple of articles which discuss this; it would be interesting to hear your views. (links provided below)

    While Singapore’s press is nowhere close to Western Europe’s in terms of openness, I think numbers like “140th” and “146th” deserve careful scrutiny. It is important that critics do not fall prey to the same errors they accuse the establishment of committing.

    Press Freedom Rankings: What’s in a Number?

    Press Freedom Rankings: In the Details

  4. speranza – Great investigative reporting! Have you attempted to calculate how many demerit points S’pore has? I think the answers to most of the questions should be available in open sources.

  5. Thank you very much for the kind words. :)

    I think that some of the answers are subject to interpretation. What is a “state monopoly”? What qualifies as an absence of independent news media? Does this cover domestic or overseas media?

    The analysis is further confounded as Reporters sans frontières have not published the individual scores for each question, for each country.

    Depending on how harshly you interpret the criteria, Singapore either comes 35th (alongside Australia and France) or 161st, below Saudi Arabia and Iraq. The truth is probably somewhere in between the two extremes of interpretation.

    It will be interesting to see if RSF publishes the full details. It is my understanding that they are aware of my blog and will be following the discussion. However not much discussion has ensued… :)

  6. More problematic areas that you left out.

    16. Prison terms imposed for media-related offences defined by law?
    Films Act and Official Secrets Act has jail terms

    18. Surveillance of journalists (phone-tapping, being followed etc)?
    Falungong journalists reported being followed.

    19. Problems of access to public or official information (refusal by officials, selection of information provided according to the media’s editorial line etc)?
    Official Secrets Act

    23. Surveillance of foreign journalists working in the country?
    See above.

    24. Foreign journalists deported?
    Falungong journalist deported.

    25. Problems getting journalist visas (undue delay, demand to know names of people to be interviewed etc)?
    Reports of foreign journalists denied work permit.

    32. A state monopoly of TV?
    Local broadcasting is govt-owned.

    41. Undue restriction of foreign investment in the media?
    NPPA.

    43. Cases of violating privacy of journalistic sources?
    Courts in S’pore requires journalists to reveal source of info.

    50. Cyber-dissidents or bloggers harassed or physically attacked (how many?)
    Cases of Robert Ho, Mohd Zulkifli, Martyn See and Seelan Pillay.

  7. Thanks for pointing out the gaps. Yes, I guess there were too many “problematic” areas and I only put down the ones which stuck out the most.

    Re #19, the UK also has the Official Secrets Act. How come the press there is so much freer?

    Re #41, what do you think should be a reasonable foreign ownership limit for our media companies? Even the US has limits. That’s why Rupert Murdoch circumvented it by taking up US citizenship.

    Re #50, Martyn See was hauled up because of his film, not his blog. I think so far, we can still say the Govt has kept is promise to regulate blogosphere with a “light touch”. Let’s hope it stays that way.

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